The cliff-like embankment that has twice sent tons of mud sliding toward Broadway has become a wall of stone.
Beauty has been sacrificed for safety. The 300-foot-wide expanse behind the new Department of Social Services building at 797 Broadway will never be covered by the green carpet of grass that was in the original design. Trees and bushes are out.
County engineers told the city that springs of water flowing out of the hill undermined their efforts to put down an erosion-control blanket and new vegetation.
“The water would push the blanket out from underneath. It would ripple,” county civil engineer James Gabriel said. “I prefer vegetation versus the rock … but you wouldn’t be able to get it to grow.”
The springs also caused several small mudslides this fall as workers tried to stabilize the hillside that buried a car and killed a man in one incident, and forced the demolition of five houses in another over the last decade.
“We had to do an immediate stabilization method,” Gabriel said.
Workers covered a 300-by-120-foot section of the hill with rock, which Gabriel called “an armored surface.”
It’s not as pretty as a hill of grass and shrubs, but Gabriel said he’s confident the steep slope will never slide again.
“We have accomplished that,” he said. “We’ve met a stabilization factor we’re very comfortable with.”
The only residents still living at the top of the hill said they are perfectly willing to sacrifice landscaping for safety.
“We plan on putting a fence up so we don’t have to see it,” said Patricia Maher.
She added that the work created a gorgeous panorama of the Mohawk Valley once the underbrush and trees were removed.
“It’s a beautiful view. You can see into Amsterdam,” she said. “So I guess they don’t need the dirt, really.”
Engineers from the design firm Clark Patterson Lee were also dismayed to discover that the retaining wall built long ago to hold up the hill was in terrible condition.
“When we uncovered it … it was not in good shape,” said firm associate Matt Smullen.
Workers buttressed the wall with stone, eliminating the last section of ground that could have been landscaped.
It turns out the hill was far less stable than anyone knew. Gabriel said a few trees were all that was holding it in place.
“We had a factor of safety that was less than one, which said that we were living on roots and a prayer,” he said. “Frankly, when we removed the trees I was amazed a prayer was enough.”
more to come
The work isn’t done yet. The portion of the hill that looms above the DSS building is solid, but that was just one-third of the hillside. Workers will now spread stone across the rest of the hill.
Gabriel said employees shouldn’t worry about the hill when they move into the DSS building this week.
“I’m confident they are safe,” he said. “It’s not going to come down.”
FEMA offered a $1.125 million grant for a stabilization project after the unstable hill caused devastation twice.
In 1996, a winter warm spell and heavy rain sent tons of mud onto the Tel Oil gas station, killing Thomas Frank as he gassed up and trapping customer Christine Tiscione in her car.
Eight years later, similar weather conditions opened a gaping crevasse behind six homes on First Avenue. All of the residents escaped but two houses had to be demolished.
Engineers later determined that the hill was being undermined from the top — residents had built additions behind their houses and piled up fill to lengthen their backyards. That placed too much weight on the top of the hill. They demolished three more houses this year to reduce the weight.
The county also spent a year negotiating with the property owners for control of the artificially enhanced backyards. Workers then raked most of their land to the bottom of the hill, creating a wider base with a slope half as steep as it had been.
The entire project cost $1.5 million. FEMA paid 75 percent of that while Galesi Group paid the rest so it could develop the DSS building at the bottom of the hill.
The safer slope may finally restore the First Avenue neighborhood. After the hill nearly dragged eight houses off their foundations in 2004, almost every resident moved away. This summer, only one family was still living on top of the muddy cliff.
Owners managed to sell their houses after the disaster to investors who bought them sight-unseen in hopes of renting them out. But when they learned about the hill, each buyer tried to unload their house on someone else.
Houses that sold for $16,000 before the mudslide went for more than triple that amount afterward, the price skyrocketing upward as investors from as far away as Florida and Colorado bid on the properties.
When the truth became clear, the prices fell faster than they had risen. Now those houses are in the hands of owners who paid $1 to $10 for them, and still they sit vacant.